Planning Process
Linda Romanello and Marc Loftus
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 3: (May/Jun 2017)

Planning Process

Previs, postvis, and techvis have certainly come into their own in recent years, and for many, they have become essential when planning out scenes and helping filmmakers realize their creative visions.

Here, we speak with creatives and heads at several top studios who are leading the way with these now essential processes – including Tefft Smith II, previsualization supervisor at Halon Entertainment (Santa Monica, California); Ron Frankel, founder and creative director of Proof (Los Angeles); Duane Floch, previs supervisor at MPC (headquartered in London); Jess Brown, VFX producer at Stargate Studios (Vancouver); and Duncan Burbidge, GM and executive producer at The Third Floor London – about the huge benefits, including time, money, and vision, that can be had.

Planning Process
Planning Process
Planning Process

Previs/postvis has really come into its own over the past few years – what do you attribute to its increasing and important role in production?

Smith: Previs, stuntvis, techvis, and postvis allow directors to visually test things out in their film and help producers figure out the optimal way to go about shooting the film in a more cost-effective way. I think the increasing utilization by production reflects the role of previs as a brain trust for not only the director, but also all departments, to test out ideas throughout production. It allows for a higher level of creativity and technical execution.

Frankel: The growing role of previs and postvis can be attributed to a few factors. First is the improved artistry of the practitioners. Previs has been around for 20 years. In the beginning, there were only a handful of us. We were young, talented, but inexperienced. Over the years, previs has attracted more talent, and those artists have gained more experience. We now have many previs artists who have five or more years of experience working with filmmakers. Some, like myself, have over twice that. That experience translates directly into the quality of the work. And if the work is good, then clients will always want more of it.

Combined with the improved artistry of the practitioners is the improved performance of the hardware and software. Faster machines mean we can get more done in less time.

And lastly, there is risk. As film budgets increase and schedules contract, previs and postvis remain the best ways to ensure that the production’s time and money are well spent. That applies to big Hollywood tent-pole extravaganzas, as well as to smaller films. If there is some complex stunt, elaborate visual effect, or even a challenging location, it is extremely helpful to previs the shots first. That way, the filmmakers can foresee any possible production issues, find solutions, and show up on the day with the confidence that they have a good plan.

Floch: “There’s an increasing awareness and acceptance among producers and VFX supervisors as to the cost benefits of previs. Months ahead of the shoot, you have the capability to quickly explore various creative ideas and technical approaches to the shooting of the film. Stunts, camera VFX, and art departments can all benefit from the agility inherent in previs and the technical data it can provide. Good use of postvis can save a lot of back and forth with VFX vendors, quickly inform the editorial process, and provide decent VFX placeholders for internal screenings in the initial phases of postproduction.

Planning Process Planning Process Planning Process

Brown: Previs enables a director to visually see the story before going to camera, which may sound like a novelty to some, but when you’re planning something either technically or practically challenging, it helps immensely to see how things play out beforehand. Anything dangerous or expensive that you may only get one chance at shooting, for instance, might be something you want to invest some previs time into. I won’t go so far as to call previs an insurance policy, but the value of seeing and evaluating challenges could be immeasurable down the road.

In visual effects, we’re well accustomed to solving problems using art, technology, and technique, mixed with a little know-how and a whole bunch of innovation. So why not try and solve some of those problems before they even materialize? Previs enables us to encounter some of these problems and plan for their resolution. Beyond that, previs plays a major role in storytelling, which is what we’re all here to do in the end. Directors can play with lighting, cameras, and sets before production to help them discover how to tell the story the way they want to, and I cannot imagine a more important reason for previs than to enhance our storytelling ability.

Burbidge: Modern entertainment creators face all sorts of challenges – from the push to show things audiences have never seen before to draw people back to the cinemas during an increasing tightening of budgets and schedules. Previs has come into its own more and more because it provides a ‘comfort blanket’ of sorts, enabling the creatives to rapidly prototype shots and scenes. Does the story work? Is that action sequence exciting enough? Does everyone buy off on what the goal is? Can we afford it? How do we shoot the sequence? Directors from a new tech-savvy generation who really enjoy and embrace the previs process are now working on bigger films. And producers these days really ‘get it,’ as using previs helps them keep control of the budget.

We’re also finding that productions are becoming ever more reliant on postvis, and the demand to turn shots over more quickly while raising the bar of visual quality has increased. Where once audience, studio, and director’s cut screenings were left with greenscreens, missing creatures, and early-stage visual effects temps, they are now filled with postvis composites that give a much more complete picture of the creative and visual ideas.

The Third Floor itself has seen a rapid expansion over the last several years, in part due to the recognition of the talent we are lucky enough to have in our company. Our supervisors and artists are seen as collaborators on their productions, adding not just technical know-how, but also significant creative support.

Virtual production has come of age as well – it’s no longer a tool for just big-budget films. We’re excited to be increasingly included in and helping innovate that process, and are supporting productions to a much greater level than we’ve done before. This includes everything from bringing previs on set, for example, for use in programming practical camera and stunt rigs, to creating virtual sets and facilitating virtual camera and director’s layout sessions.

What are some of the key benefits of previs/postvis?

Smith: Aside from the creative key benefits, previs is cost-effective in that it reduces guesswork on the days of the shoots. Previs can really help the actors know what is happening scene by scene when shooting against blue. This was especially true with the work we did on Alice Through the Looking Glass. Postvis quickly helps the editors form the story, while also being a great guide for the VFX houses.

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Frankel: I come from an architecture background, and in school we had a saying, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’ That same mentality applies to filmmaking as well. Having a good, well-conceived plan can be invaluable to a production. It means more time spent focused on shots that will end up on the screen, rather than on the editing room floor. Previs and postvis are a great, cost-effective way to hone in on the creative vision of the filmmakers and come up with that plan.

Floch: A seasoned previs team, dialed into the director’s vision, can quickly explore different approaches to every key sequence in the film. It’s fantastic when there’s a high level of collaboration among previs, the director, the DP, and other key departments. Once the work is creatively approved, you move on to technical solutions. All of this is done in pre-production and can save production a significant amount of time and money.

Planning Process

Brown: I touched on some this above, so let’s discuss a scenario so we can demonstrate some of these benefits. You’re planning a car chase for your film, so you’ve sat down with your storyboard artist and planned out this daring adventure down the highway ending in a nerve-racking car jump over the median and down an empty on-ramp to freedom, but only after the two police cars have collided into each other and barrel-rolled to a stop. You’ve taken these boards and met with special effects, and they begin posing questions such as, how fast will the cars be going? What angles do we want to see when they collide? How many times should they roll? How far does the car jump? As you can see, these things start to add up quickly, and they’ll all need very specific technical solutions. So knowing how you want to shoot things can help identify and solve those problems before they become exactly that, a problem.

More important, perhaps, is we share in the creative discovery that the previs process allows to happen. This discovery is becoming more and more important as the prevalence of animation and CG characters become commonplace among film and television today, and the benefit grows as the previs process shines in its inexpensive and relatively quick turnaround time. Once the previs process is complete, you gain the added benefit of taking those materials to set and shoot, using them as a guideline. Hopefully, the principal photography should look strikingly similar to the previs that was done, but you really can never discount the creative discovery that can, at times, occur on a film set.

Burbidge: Previs really provides a visual sandbox where creative ideas can be explored very cost effectively early in the production. We love working with directors, producers, production designers, stunt coordinators, directors of photography, visual effects supervisors, and many other heads of departments to help them find the best ways to make the best, most exciting movies, shows, games, and experiences possible. Using previs should be a liberating experience for directors. Rather than everyone asking, ‘what are we shooting?’ and walking away with a slightly different interpretation, they can instead have department heads ask specific questions based on seeing the previs that relates to their specific team’s needs.

Postvis greatly helps the editorial process by allowing directors and editors to cut with missing bits of the shots incorporated. A postvis team can quickly take elements of shots and insert missing backgrounds, creatures, and effects – any number of details the director needs. Turning the material over quickly affords the production time to refine the edit and enact changes to make the best of the material. These days, we typically get called in to help provide material for director’s cuts as well as audience test screenings, and we also provide postvis comps to companies creating final visual effects.

Can you cite recent projects where previs helped save time or money, or how it was key in figuring out how a scene would play out?

Smith: On Tomorrowland, there were several sequences based around the Eiffel Tower that, with previs, we were able to figure out the best shots and sequences for the story without having to waste money unnecessarily shooting around the Eiffel Tower. On Kong: Skull Island, we were able to help out on a good portion of requests the director made that couldn’t be executed without testing them out first. Once we had a proof of concept, it laid the groundwork for his requests to make it in the final film.

Planning Process

Frankel: On Star Trek Beyond, we worked closely with Justin Lin (director), Peter Chiang (VFX supervisor), and Alex Vegh (second unit director) to design the big swarm ship sequences. There was creative reference for the swarm, but working out the details of size, scale, and speed fell to our previs team. We went through a series of studies looking at the swarm ship behavior, and then worked through multiple iterations of the swarm action. The swarm ship was no ordinary enemy. Our challenge was making sure that the swarm came across as a living, thinking, dynamic character, and that it performed its actions in a logical, understandable, and lethal way.

Once the swarm ship previs was approved, we packaged our [Autodesk] Maya files and sent them to Double Negative, so they could complete the final versions. Having our scene files gave them a tremendous head start on the difficult postproduction process. Knowing that these were the ‘approved’ shots, they could focus 100 percent of their effort on making them look amazing.

Floch: On the film Passengers, most of the sets had substantial digital extensions. Optimizing camera placement in previs to take advantage of the limited stage space was critical for nearly every department. Solutions to issues like these are more budget-friendly in pre-production than on the day of the shoot.

Planning Process

Brown: The last previs project I was on is an upcoming title for Netflix, to be released in 2018, and we had two specific types of previs to design for them. The first task was to work with the visual effects supervisor and director to lay out a few locations that required a large CG character – specifically to see how the character would fit both the locations and through the lens. The next task was to find interesting ways to light the locations to help tell the story in a specific way, and find camera angles and moves that lend themselves to enhancing the storytelling therein.

Simultaneously, we were working out the details of a large stunt scene that would involve actors dangling on wires. We used the previs process to help determine how much stage height was needed, how much of the prop set to build, and exactly where we could fit a camera physically in that space.

Burbidge:The Third Floor has had numerous recent productions where our clients have been very vocal and supportive of our contribution. ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ episode from Game of Thrones Season 6 is one example. How could a battle of epic proportions, including an army of thousands of soldiers and horses, be achieved for television with a high degree of realism? Our previs team was central to mapping out specific shooting and visual effects plans that combined horse-master shots, CG elements, crowd titles, greenscreens, drone cameras, and many other puzzle pieces to effectively achieve the scene.

Planning Process

On Doctor Strange, we collaborated with Marvel to provide previs across the movie that helped answer key questions like, how do you create a mind-bending universe but still maintain a solid set of rules? What does it look like to have a whole city folding or time playing in reverse? Does the shot require a crane or a motion-control rig? Is it first or second unit? How does the action support the storytelling?

The challenges can be creatively driven, technically driven, or both – at the same time! How do you shoot Tom Cruise holding his breath for nine minutes in an underwater tank for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation? How do you put a new spin on action sequences while maintaining the respect of a generation’s worth of established franchise expectations for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story? These are just some of the interesting challenges our team has helped address in recent assignments.

Some previs is so detailed, it’s almost like a finished project. What’s the level of detail you typically need to provide?

Smith: With previs, we need to supply the best-looking product within the tight timeframe we are given for a sequence. With the advancements of computers, software, and game engines, we are able to do the same amount of work that best tells the story with a much more polished render. At the end of the day, it is always about telling the story first and, hopefully, making it as detailed as we can.

Frankel: Some of our work is created with a high level of visual detail approaching the realism of video game cinematics. Other projects employ a more stylized look, with some using very flat shading and limited color palettes. Some clients prefer us to add in as much detail as possible so they can really see their film. Others are more comfortable with abstraction and find that the creative conversation flows more smoothly when there is less detail to distract the eye. The right look and the right level of detail really depend on the personalities of the filmmakers and the goals of the project.

Planning Process Planning Process

Floch: Every project has different needs, and every director has a preference. I’ve been on projects where there was a desire for as much detail as possible, including facial animation, lighting, effects, sound design, music and atmospherics, etc. It would be financially impractical for every sequence to be done to that level of detail. I’ve been on other projects where the director didn’t want to see any emotions or facial animation because of the potential for distraction. Another show used hand-drawn storyboards for close-up shots on actors. Generally speaking, most projects find a middle ground.

Brown: I’ve never been involved in a project that requires that much detail, but I imagine that would be the penultimate, next only to completing the finished shots themselves. Being able to see the film before the film is made must be quite an accomplished feeling.

Burbidge: It ranges from production to production. At The Third Floor, we generally like to set the bar pretty high, as we feel it helps better communicate the director’s intent. You want people to feel like they’re watching an early preview of the project they are making and get excited by it, so the previs needs to have good animation, camera work, and editing. That said, you sometimes need to make compromises due to budget and schedule or because the needs of the production dictate something different. One of the most important talents of our artists is the ability to communicate a lot and quickly, so having that degree of flexibility only makes the team better and more efficient.

Do you offer techvis as a service, and if so, in what capacity?

Smith: Yes, at Halon Entertainment, we offer everything from camera lens, camera height, distance to subjects, speed of objects, and accurate locations. With the help of Google Maps, we can find the locations, build them out to spec, figure out what camera package the DP is using, know the heights of all the actors, we even do the likeness based off photos of them. With all the information, once the director approves the sequence, we have an overview of where all the cameras are in real space and can turn that over to the production. That way, when they shoot, they have a pretty accurate understanding of what is needed on set for that day.

Planning Process

Frankel: Techvis is inherently part of all our work. Our scenes are all built to proper scale and are animated to conform to the appropriate laws of physics – whether real or fantastic. If the client requests detailed blueprints for specific shots, then all we need to do is generate a few images, add some dimensions, and send them a PDF. If the client wants us to export animation data to drive a motion-control camera or a robotic arm, it’s simply a matter of formatting the data so it can be read correctly by the other device. Techvis isn’t some other thing that we do – it’s at the core of our production-centric approach to visualization. And because of that approach, we end up spending a good deal of time on set, working closely with the camera and visual effects departments.

Floch: MPC does offer techvis as a service. We present it either in the form of diagrams or annotated, split-panel QuickTimes. On Passengers, we did several passes of techvis for the zero-gravity pool sequence. The safety of the actress was dependent on every department wrapping their heads around the resources required for each shot. We included the hydro-crane rig and stunt rigs, and for visual effects, we included passes for background plates, greenscreen and bluescreen placement, and reverse engineered passes for practical camera and actress orientation underwater.

Planning Process

I’ve led techvis efforts to inform department heads and executives which stunt rigs would be used in which shot and for which actor or stand-in. It’s common to reverse engineer some shots for acquisition on a greenscreen stage when the actor is suspended by cables or by various stunt rigs.

Some shots need to be laid out showing a clear demarcation between digital and practical elements or extensions. Motion--based shots generally require techvis in order to verify the legality of the movement well ahead of the shoot day. There’s no shortage of good information that can be extracted from previs.

Brown: Unfortunately, most of our clients don’t require this type of service, so I have never had the need.

Burbidge: Techvis is very much a part of our workflow here. Figuring out how to shoot the previs is a natural part of the process, whether it’s in depicting detailed camera and shooting details through diagrams or QuickTime movies, or helping block and rehearse scenes with our in-house motion-capture or virtual camera systems. Our teams also go on set to provide live visualization and simulcam, sometimes actually porting the animation that was worked out in previs to drive physical rigs and camera dollies, and working with the on-set crew to develop shooting solutions on the fly.

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We’ve also been working with our partners in visual effects to ensure that data we create in previs can integrate easily into their workflows. There’s a real interest in facilitating continuity, not just of the creative intent being communicated in the previs, but bringing the work from previs more directly all the way through the film. In addition, we’ve been building tools to integrate virtual reality into our process.

What software tools are you using for your previs/postvis work?

Smith: At Halon, we primarily use Maya, After Effects, Premiere, ZBrush, Photo-shop, Mobu, Nuke, SynthEyes, Unreal, and Nx Witness.

Frankel: For previs, our primary tools are Maya and Premiere. We also make extensive use of Photoshop. For postvis, our primary tools are Maya, Nuke, After Effects, and SynthEyes. We occasionally use ZBrush and Blender. And for real-time work, we use Unreal.

Floch: MPC’s team uses Maya, Photoshop, and After Effects extensively in previs. There are a number of packages for UV mapping and texture painting that our asset artists also use, and we have a number of proprietary tools at our disposal. We’re finishing up development on a new VR/game engine pipeline. In postvis, you can add tracking software like Boujou, SynthEyes or PFMatchit to that list.

Brown: We use Maya for all our previs work and will either cut it together in Premiere or Nuke, depending on whether or not I want to tweak lighting, color, or any number of other factors. Ultimately, the software isn’t as important; it’s the team you’re working with that is critical to the success of your project.

Burbidge: The tools we use include off-the-shelf software, like Maya and Motion-Builder, After Effects, and the Creative Cloud Suite. We also use Nuke for postvis, along with various 3D tracking tools. The Third Floor also develops its own proprietary tools, libraries, and surrounding pipelines to make our workflow as efficient as we can. We’ve recently been customizing tools, for example, in Epic’s Unreal Engine. In the past few months, we’ve also put a lot of time and resources into building our own custom virtual production technology. We feel it’s central to how projects of the future will be made. ′

Linda Romanello (lromanello@postmagazine) is chief editor and Marc Loftus (mloftus@postmagazine) is senior editor/director of Web content at Post, CGW’s sister publication.